By Amy Wenk
When her only daughter Amanda refused to put on the home-made dresses she designed, Mary Siegel had to weave her love of smocking into other areas of her life.
“My daughter wouldn’t wear it,” said Siegel, a native of Washington, D.C. who moved to Sandy Springs in 1972. “She was such a tomboy she wouldn’t wear it.”
But that didn’t stop smocking — a sewing technique where people embroider designs on pleated fabric — from influencing “a lot of different positive things in my life,” said the mother of two.
For the past 30 years, Siegel has smocked her way into business, social organizations and most recently community service.
With her company Little Stitches, she designed smocking patterns in the late 1970s and 1980s that today continue to sell nationwide. In 1979 Siegel helped found the Atlanta Smocking Guild, which still brings together masters of the craft. And in the 1990s, Siegel re-designed one of the guild’s service projects to help more parents of premature babies.
This year alone, Siegel said, she has smocked 87 gowns and made 56 flannel diaper shirts, 12 patchwork quilts, two blankets and one bonnet. She will donate the items to Northside Hospital in Sandy Springs and Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. The garments will sweetly clothe tiny one- to four-pound babies who may look less normal while hooked up to medical equipment.
“I’ve been sort of crazed this year,” Siegel said pointing to a wicker basket in her den. “I keep this basket here and if I have them sort of prepared … and I’m watching the news or whatever, I just pick it up and do it. It’s really getting them ready, is what takes the time. I don’t even count the time for smocking it, because I am always doing that when I am in the car or watching TV.”
Siegel said she learned to sew when she was 11 years old.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandmother,” Siegel said. “She always was crocheting or quilting or something. She was an inspiration.”
But it was a neighbor who got her interested in smocking about 30 years ago.
“She said, ‘We needed to start a business,” Siegel said. “We were naïve … I only had lessons that she taught me. I never took formal lessons.”
But when the neighbor moved, Siegel kept going with the company called Little Stitches.
“I’ve always enjoyed needlework,” Siegel said. “You get a lot of effect for not a lot of work. People look at it and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you must of spent weeks on that,’ when really you spent two nights. You get a lot out of it, and it’s just very pretty.”
Siegel designed about 33 smocking patterns through Little Stitches. Her favorite is named “Amanda” after her difficult-to-dress daughter.
She also developed a smocking technique called ribbonweaving, where ribbon is intertwined through the smocking.
In the years that followed, Siegel taught smocking and wrote articles for magazines.
She helped organize the Atlanta Smocking Guild in 1979.
“The national organization was in its infancy,” Siegel said. “A few of us who taught smocking got together to begin the local chapter and used our contacts to develop a thriving guild in a very short time.”
Siegel is one of two charter members still with the guild that meets monthly.
Siegel has served positions in the guild such as president. As co-chair of the service committee, she became involved in the Wee Care Program, which smocks bonnets and gowns for premature babies at local hospitals.
She and other guild members were moved by the neonatal volunteers they met while presenting gowns at Grady Memorial Hospital. The three began visiting Grady to rock and feed preemie babies while their parents were away. Both Siegel and her friend Dianne Doan of Johns Creek still volunteer each week.
Around 1993 Siegel increased the guild’s production of hospital gowns by developing a new pattern that was easier to construct.
The group was producing about 30 to 40 gowns a year before the “Grady Gown,” as it was called, was introduced.
“Our production rose to an average of 400 gowns a year,” Siegel said.
The Atlanta guild in 2009 produced 476 smocked gowns, 239 flannel diaper shirts, 39 crochet-edged blankets and 14 patchwork quilts to distribute to Northside and Grady hospitals.
“People aren’t prepared for a preemie baby usually,” Siegel said. “So they don’t have things ready and it’s hard to find those little tiny sizes. It’s just a real big help if they have a gown.”
Now after 30 years of smocking, Siegel finally has what she always wanted — a little girl to dress up. She became a grandmother about five months ago.